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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Outstanding in Your Field: What It Takes to Be a Great Teacher

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Steven Covey wrote a book called The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, to try and help organizations and individuals find their own voices. The premise of the book was that if you didn't do this, you or your organization might not be able to achieve greatness. After I read this book, I considered the word greatness for a long while. Of course, being an incessant analyzer, I asked myself this question: "What does greatness mean in education?" Then I began thinking about my own career.

I know I was a good teacher, but I never thought of myself as a great teacher. I certainly had passion, enthusiasm, and creativity, but I never thought I had the stuff for greatness, though I did the best I knew how with the resources that were available. As a teacher, I found myself naturally drawn to thinking about what I could do to improve my lessons, to overcome negative student behaviors, or to encourage individual students. I went to conferences and saw other teachers with more experience, verbal acuity, and style and I wanted to be like them. While I was well aware of my own shortcomings, I never quit trying to improve, grow, and learn to be a better teacher. I achieved tremendous success in getting my students to take and pass the AP Spanish Language tests and to actually speak Spanish, but my strategies and skills were not unique. Aside from a little bit of personal flair (my daughter, Mercedes would say fifth grade humor) these strategies were the compilation of wisdom and experience gained mostly from other teachers.

Although I was not a world-renown educator, I would like to believe that I eventually found my voice and achieved a moderate level of greatness. During this whole process of becoming great, the varied experiences in my career as a teacher deepened my knowledge and skills, and strengthened my resolve to improve my craft. In that process, I went through the typical three-stage teacher-attitude cycle (this parallels research done by Frances Fuller and John L. Watzke):

  • Shock: "Whoa! This is too much, and I want out."
  • Cynicism: "The students don't care. The administration doesn't support us."
  • Self-Actualization: "I can do this. This is fun. If I help just one student, it is worth it!"

In each of these steps, I was lucky to have other caring individuals help me. As a new teacher, I benefited greatly from the patient ministrations of several seasoned teachers who showed me the ropes on how to do grading, discipline, effective lessons, and ways to manage the volume of work. Without their help, I would not have made it past the first year. As teachers are required to do, I attended workshops and teacher meetings in which I was inspired to be great. I saw Stand and Deliver, which depicts how a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, challenged the mental and social limitations his students had placed on themselves, thereby bringing them to greatness. I felt that if I could be that passionate about teaching students, I could do anything. Then I went back into the classroom and faced the reality that I had only a certain amount of time, strength, and energy, and my desire for greatness faded a bit, though I never let it die completely.

The third year for me was another matter. When I visited the teacher lounge or in staff or department meetings, it was other teachers that introduced me to teacher cynicism. I was only able to get out of that trap of negativity in the second stage and move into the third stage of self-actualization because of wonderful mentor teachers who helped me understand that complaining and blaming resolved nothing and only inhibited my growth. Mr. Devereaux, the Spanish department head, helped me most of all. He taught me that I first had to be the solution rather than add all my complaining to the problem. He helped me enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey, and not concentrate on the pebbles in my shoes. Reflecting on my teaching career, I don't think I was an effective teacher until I learned that lesson.

When I decided to become an administrator, that spark of desire for greatness was rekindled and refocused: I wanted to inspire other teachers to be great and thus pass that on to their students. I have seen that spark of greatness in teachers when I have observed classrooms, and watched teachers interact with students. I saw this greatness through the eyes of students as I shadowed a first grader, a second grader, an eighth grader, and a ninth grader, and attended all of their classes with them. In each, I marveled at the relationships forged by teachers, as well as their excitement and enthusiasm. I've witnessed similar elements of greatness firsthand, while spending hours at campuses and in teacher classrooms in all grades levels and in nearly every type of school.

In the second part of this post, I describe these experiences in more detail and pose some questions about greatness for you to ponder, but please share your thoughts about what you think greatness means in education and in your classrooms.

Become a Transformational Teacher

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Melissa Chamberlain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked the comment, "I first had to be the solution to all my problems, and then I could enjoy the excitement and challenges of the journey". When things go wrong we always look to others for solutions. Sometimes it is you that you need to look at. I will keep this quote in mind when I come across a situation where I want to blame someone.

Craig Lubbers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I understand your concern and have thought about this issue of switching classes as well. I think one answer to that question is that principals like to keep their teachers fresh and on their feet. I think that switching grade levels causes you to depend on others, and to be constantly learning. I think it is very easy for teachers to get set in their ways and begin to look past what is known and current. I think that teachers begin to focus more on just schooling than learning as referred to what Jeffrey A. Kottler, Stanley J. Zehm, and Ellen Kottler describes in the book "On Being a Teacher." Switching grade levels for me has been both a positive and frustrating experience. It has, however, pushed me, caused me to collaborate more with others, and keeps me focused on my students and learning new things. I do think, though, that there can be too much changing and there are times when it can be better to just stay put.

Reference: Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a Teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is encouraging to know that other teachers go through that three-step teacher-attitude cycle. I tend to be in step one and two most of the time. It seems that just when I have had enough, I fall into step three. I feel that I have that step three attitude just enough to keep me going. Don't get me wrong, I love my job as a teacher and a facilitator for learning, but the things that come along with being a teacher can be very disheartening at times. I enjoyed reading this blog. I will definitly come back again!

Craig Lubbers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Keep being that light no matter how small you think it is. Remember that the smallest light can light up the entire room. Traci, I enjoyed reading what you posted and I can tell that you have a desire and passion to be great. That desire and passion will feed your light and help you become an even greater teacher. I agree that at times it seems that the size of our light changes. You always have to remind yourself of step three. Staying focused on the students and why you are teaching helps you look past all of the other things that might keep you from being the best, effective teacher that you can be. I think that it order to become a great teacher we most go through the highs and the lows. We need to learn from the low points and our mistakes. We must also reflect on our experiences and ourselves and think how we can help other teachers to the possibility of skipping steps one and two. Wouldn't that be great!!

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that each position we move to in the education field renews our sense of wanting to achieve greatness. I have recently been a mentor to a teacher intern. I was excited to see her passion for education, which rubbed off on me. I went back to being more creative in the classroom, like I had been during my student teaching experience, and I truly enjoyed it.

I also would like to say that I think every administrator should take the time to walk into each classroom to really see what great things are taking place. I have been in several schools and have yet to see a principal come in without doing a formal observation. I always see or hear "our staff is doing a wonderful job." However, I have to wonder how they know - I never see them!

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was once where you are now. I can tell you it does get easier in some regards as you experience more. The routines and management will become second nature and the content knowledge will become richer as you stick with it. Find someone who can help fan the flame and not try to blow it out. I think blogs like these can help as well as mentors in the field. Keep the flame burning and watch it grow stronger and brighter!
Best Wishes,
Debbie Leonard

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. Seeking greatness is what we all want, but we can get bogged down by things we feel are out of our control.

I also think that the "greatness" we speak of in teachers is also in other staff members, such as paraeducators/instructional assistants. Many assistants that I work with seek to become better as well. However, there is the other side of the spectrum too - those that do not like children and think they should never have to work with a group of students.

Rachael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also enjoyed the three step attitude, and believe it is so true! As a first year teacher, I was very motivated and excited to start my school year. I was unaware of many of the negative attitudes teachers can have towards students, administrators, and "the system". Despite my inexperience, I hoped to not gain these negative feelings towards teaching, and thought that hopefully, I never would. Throughout the year I came across students who did not want to learn, and a "system" that was failing our students. I also came across teachers who would complain and blame others for everything. The third step of this process, "This is fun. Get out of my way and let me do my job.", is where I try to stay while teaching. I try to stay away from the negative ideas and thoughts, and try to stay positive. The whole reason I became a teacher was to help students, not complain about things I cannot change. As I grow in my career, I must try to remind myself of why I got into teaching. I think then, I can become a "great" teacher.

Scott Pavalko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with what you are saying about just beginning to know who you are as an educator. When you first get out of college, you figure that you know a lot about the profession and that you are ready to go. Although this maybe for the most part true, it continues to amaze me how much I learn on a year-to-year basis about who I am as an educator. I also learn how to be better in the classroom and better ways to get the material across to my students.

I hope that the rest of my career is like that.

Scott Pavalko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with what you are saying about just beginning to discover who you are as an educator. When I graduated from college, I thought that I knew who I was and the best way to teach the material. I still continue to be amazed at how much I learn about myself and about my students on a year-to-year basis. I think that this is only going to get better the more into my career I get.

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